The Palestra holds a number of impressive distinctions in the context of college basketball and collegiate sports history: it’s the oldest major college arena still in use today, and it’s hosted more college basketball games, visiting teams, and (excluding Dayton's UD Arena) NCAA Tournaments than any other arena in the country.
The very first NCAA Tournament, with just eight teams, was held in 1939. As a result of the small bracket, the Palestra hosted three out of the seven total games. While each of the three games were low-scoring affairs (Ohio State had the highest single-game point total, scoring just 64 against Wake Forest), every game was won by a wide margin, with two victories by 12 and one by 17.
Although the Palestra established itself in the history of the Tournament, having hosted a significant proportion of the first one ever, the arena wouldn’t host another set of NCAA Tournament games until 14 years later, in 1953.
That season, the Palestra was relegated to hosting just a pair of first round games, both won by a margin of 13.
After the 1953 Tournament, the Palestra kicked off a four-year run of hosting March Madness games that were all Regional Semifinal or Regional Final Consolation games. In modern terms, this means that the Palestra was home to the equivalent of two Sweet Sixteen games and one Elite Eight game each season from 1954 to 1957.
There were several thrilling games that occurred at the Palestra over that stretch of time, but two that stand out from the rest were in the 1956 Tournament. In the Regional Semifinal that year, Temple faced off against Connecticut. The Owls only scored 65 points, but 40 of those came from one player, Hal Lear, who shot 18-for-27 from the field.
Hailing from Philadelphia, the six-foot guard single-handedly led his team to victory in his hometown, as the Owls won 65-59. However, Lear regressed to the mean in the Regional Final, scoring 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting. With more help from his teammates on the scoring front, though, Temple was able to narrowly defeat Canisius 60-58. Lear was eventually awarded the Most Outstanding Player award for his play, thanks in large part to one of the more impressive performances in the NCAA Tournament that year.
After a brief four-year hiatus from March Madness, the Palestra returned to host the NCAA Tournament in 1962, as the arena went on to house four consecutive years of three First Round matchups.
One significant game came in 1963, when the Palestra hosted a matchup between St. Joseph’s and Princeton. It was a thriller that eventually went into overtime, with the Hawks narrowly edging Princeton out, 82-81. In that game, future NBA legend and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ), playing for the Tigers, set the NCAA Tournament record at the time for free throws made in a single game, hitting 16 at the line.
Another four-year break would ensue before the Palestra went on to host at least one NCAA Tournament game in all but three years during the 1970s.
The Palestra hosted a single First Round game in both 1970 and 1971, and after a brief break from the Tournament in 1972, it hosted one game in both 1973 and 1974. Later on, the Palestra was home to two First Round games in 1975, 1977, and 1978.
Only twice did the Quakers get to play a March Madness game in their home arena, and each time was during this stretch. In their games at the Palestra during the NCAA Tournament, the Red and Blue went 1-1, losing to Kansas State in 1975 and beating St. Bonaventure in 1978.
In 1975, despite having four of its five starters score in double-digits, Penn couldn’t manage to overcome a 12-point first half deficit, losing by a score of 69-62.
After Princeton won the Ivy title and lost in the First Round at the Palestra each of the next two seasons, the Quakers reclaimed the conference championship in 1978, shaping themselves up for a matchup against St. Bonaventure in the First Round of the Tournament.
St. Bonaventure jumped out ahead early, leading Penn by five entering the second half. At that point, the Quakers managed to outplay the Bonnies significantly in the second half, routing them by a margin of 55-41. Penn won the game 92-83, primarily due to Ivy League Player of the Year Keven McDonald’s monster 37-point, and 11-rebound outing.
“He’s had a number of great games, so I couldn’t say if this was his greatest,” then Penn head coach Bob Weinhauer said. “This certainly came at a good time.”
Playing at the Palestra clearly had its benefits for the 1978 team, but they ended up losing to Duke in Providence, R.I. during the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Palestra had another four-year hiatus before it hosted its final stretch of March Madness games. In 1983 and 1984, the Palestra hosted play-in games, with two being played there in 1983 and three in 1984.
Only two of the five games were decided by single digits, with the most notable performance coming from Princeton’s Kevin Mullin in 1983, who scored 38 points on 12-for-15 from the field in a 65-56 victory over San Diego. His scoring output marks the most points by an Ivy League player in an NCAA Tournament game not named Bill Bradley. The game was televised on ESPN, where analyst Dick Vitale called Mullin’s performance “one of the best he’d seen all year”.
That game would serve as the final time the Palestra would ever host an NCAA Tournament, with Mullin's legendary March Madness scoring performance fitting in among those of Lear’s or McDonald’s.
There was a push in 2016 to have the Palestra host March Madness games once again after the NCAA had to move all of its events from North Carolina due to controversy over the House Bill 2. Several media members came out in support of the proposition.
“Think about Philly fans packing the place. It would be a scene, to say the least. Something indelible and unrepeatable anywhere else,” CBS Sports writer Matt Norlander said.
Although there have been plenty of memorable games played at the Palestra, March Madness holds a unique place in the history of the legendary arena. As anyone who has been to a game at the Palestra can attest to, the 8,700+ fan occupancy and the old-school nature of the arena creates an experience that is unlike any other in college basketball.
Maybe one day, the NCAA Tournament will return to where it started.
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